This brief article will attempt to shine a spotlight, if you will, on some of the humble beginnings of the animal known as television situation comedies – shorthand vernacular = sitcoms. So…
In the beginning, there was….well, depending on how far back in the beginning you want to go, the first situation comedy depiction most likely was animated storytelling around a fire in a cave at dinnertime, with a captive audience, exhausted from a long day of hunting, fishing, running from dinosaurs and other beasts – you know, a typical workday. Ugg, being the most lucid, or perhaps just the best at an early form of charades, regaled the dinner crowd who feasted on a banquet of brontasaurus burgers accompanied by various assorted fruits and roots with his latest tale of how Glimkf rom two caves down got caught cheating on his wife and has to clean the fire pit for the next month. This was possibly accompanied by a few charcoal drawings on the cave walls for further emphasis. (Did you know Ugg was the pioneer of the first Powerpoint presentation? Well, that’s another story.)
Fast forwarding several millenniums, TV situation comedy as the modern world has come to know it, was the offspring of the Golden Age of Radio, back when people had to use their imagination to depict the scenes, according to the voice actor’s convince-ability ratio, along with appropriate sound effects to fill in the blanks. But as progress marched onward with the evolution of television, for the most part, the audience became accustomed to accepting whatever was showing (the gradual dumbing down of the many rather than the few…don’t take offense, now! Somebody other than this writer coined the phrase “boob tube”). Not that all early television fare was mind-numbing drivel; far from it. Many of those early shows gleamed with originality, wit and messages with heart. But as people started working more, the networks started expanding, and with the advent of cable television, sitcoms have sadly sunk slowly in the west, for the most part. There are still a few brilliant diamonds in the rough that come along, now and again. British comedies, in particular, are almost always fraught with wit and fast-flying dialogue. But as TV viewers, most people have become pretty accustomed to accepting humdrum mediocre shows as being “as good as it gets.” Sigh.
Speaking of British comedy, Pinwright’s Progress, was first broadcast on the BBC from 1946 to ’47, and therefore could be considered situation comedy’s flagship, In America, producer/director William Asher is often considered to be the father of the genre. His resume’ is vast; it all started with Our Miss Brooks, starring Eve Arden, from 1952 to 1956. From there, Asher went on to become the lead director of the hit classic I Love Lucy, and after that, he was part and parcel of more than two dozen hit shows. These included The Patty Duke Show, Bewitched, and several more. Interestingly, Asher was married to Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery for ten years (1963 to ’73). Their marriage started one year prior to the initial broadcast of Bewitched and ended one year after the show went off the air. Could this possibly be chalked up to the cost of fame? We’ll never know, as they never participated as contestants on Family Feud. But game shows are a whole different animal.
TV sitcoms have become a longstanding category of television entertainment, as demonstrated by the immense popularity of such long-running shows as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, Cosby, Roseanne, Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace, and in more recent years The Office and Scrubs. Particularly in troubled times, there’s always been a market for lifting the public’s spirits with laughter. TVLand’s popularity attests to the sitcoms durability, due to its broadcast of former hit shows, and now a few original ones such as Hot in Cleveland(featuring veteran sitcom actress Betty White – 89 years young and still she possesses spot on timing – ya gotta love Betty!)
Some of the most popular sitcoms which continue to live on in perpetuity via reruns actually had pretty short-lived air time, surprisingly. Gilligan’s Island is the standout example of this weird conundrum – it lasted only three seasons, but its reruns have been broadcast for decades. Other short-lived broadcast sitcoms that grew more popular after the demise of their run time yet eerily live on via syndication and reruns include The Addams Family and The Munsters – these were considered rival shows because both ran for the same two seasons – between 1964 and 1966 – and they were oddly reminiscent of each other due to the, shall we say, eccentricities of the family members? America’s current actor who has come closest to filling Jimmy Stewart’s considerable “everyman” actor shoes, Tom Hanks, had his career initially launched by the sitcom Bosom Buddies, where he and Peter Scolari dressed in drag in order to stay in affordable housing in New York. It also only lasted two seasons, 1980 to ’82. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe Tom Hanks has stopped to take more than an occasional breath since then. And we’re lucky he hasn’t.
The variety show was an early precursor to sitcoms. These started almost as soon as the first snowy images first came to life on the television screen. Viewer favorites in the 1950s included Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. It featured Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca and many others. One of the show’s main writers was Mel Brooks (who went on to create Get Smart with Buck Henry and then to movie and Broadway fame with such hits as The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles and more). The movie My Favorite Year, starring Peter O’Toole in 1982, was loosely based on Your Show of Shows.
We seem to have survived the era of chubby, average guy husbands married to gorgeous wives – thankfully, that may have fallen by the wayside with the demise of According to Jim. What could have possessed these glamorous gals to settle, or that we’d buy it that so many of them did so? I mean, come on! Jim Belushi’s a very likable fellow, but there sure was an overabundance of this type of casting for about a decade. You have to hand it to Roseanne for believable casting, as well as the onscreen chemistry she had with John Goodman. Like ’em, hate ’em, or love ’em, TV sitcoms have proven they’re here to stay. And thank goodness for this bizarre, entertaining reality escape which helps us leave our troubles behind and where laughter reigns supreme, if only for twenty-three minutes (that’s minus commercials, folks). So go ahead – give yourself permission to yuck it up, friends. You deserve a good laugh; it IS great medicine!